Heading home after two days in Seoul, with my boarding pass in hand and the prospect of sitting at the back of a full plane in a middle seat for 13 hours on my cheapest-flight-we-could-find ticket that takes me via Paris to London. I’m sure there was a time when luck, charm and tactics was enough to get you an upgrade. Not today. These are the days when I almost wish I was a UN bureaucrat. Almost.
Korea’s main airport at Incheon is surprisingly pleasant. There are a couple of cultural zones where you can do traditional painting while you wait for your plane or listen to Korean musicians. There is a somewhat melancholy air to the music, which may be a deliberate choice. Korea is mourning the loss of dozens of sailors who died when their submarine went down in unclear circumstances last month. Last night my 1GOAL colleague Chris and I found ourselves at the very poignant memorial that has been created outside the city hall. Pictures of each sailor – young, beaming and proud – were arranged on a huge altar and surrounded by flowers under a guard of honour. It was fairly quiet when we walked by late at night, but the airport-style barriers for queuing and the flowers already laid were evidence of the numbers that have come to pay their respects in recent days. National grief here is contained and reserved, but beneath the surface there seems a palpable anguish. And looking at the pictures, it was impossible to forget that this national loss is also a profound personal tragedy for dozens of mothers and fathers. The loss of a son or daughter, whether as an infant or young adult, is surely as awful as it gets.
On Monday we met Dr Rhee, the senior government official who is the chief negotiator for the South Koreans at the G20 summit here in November. The host country’s ‘Sherpa’ plays a big role in setting the agenda for the summit and bringing the other countries together behind it. South Korea have some good ideas about how the November summit could look at the way economic growth plays a central role in the struggle against poverty – this country is a great example of just that. The foundation for South Korea’s growth was investment in education, and we are keen to see if they will bring that experience to the heart of this year’s G20 agenda.
The 1GOAL campaign is active in Korea and happily – given the campaign’s focus on the World Cup – the country is football-mad. We’ve realised that there is one person who probably has more influence in this country than everyone else put together: Manchester United’s Park Ji Sung. Good job he’s signed up to support 1GOAL. Every time we mention his name, people break out in proud smiles. Even Dr Rhee.
The Sherpa meeting seemed to go well and then I headed off for the other big reason for coming: to talk with my Save the Children colleagues about the EVERY ONE campaign to save children’s lives. They’re running a great campaign here, with thousands of people knitting hats to go on babies’ heads (including the President’s wife, who heard about the campaign and promptly knitted 60 of them herself!) It’s amazing how the knitting thing has caught on in different parts of the world – people really relish the chance to help save a child’s life by doing something they know they are good at – while also sending a powerful message to decision-makers that they must do their part too.
Nobho Kim and his Save the Children team here tell us a bit about the history of the organisation – created in the aftermath of the Korean war fifty-odd years ago, doing exactly what we’re doing now, saving children’s lives. They showed us some wonderful grainy black-and-white footage of the early days. In more recent years Save the Children has been revitalised as an organisation led by Koreans, not by foreigners, and they’re now building their work in North Korea and in Africa too, as well as taking care of children in their own country. You can see the passion and dedication in the whole staff team here – a lot of young Koreans who are working hard and wanting to make a difference for children.
Dinner last night threw up a few challenges – we set off for a district that we were told is a great place to people-watch. When we arrived we found ourselves in a neon shopping mecca full of western high-street brand names – Zara, Foot Locker and the obligatory Starbucks. Hoping for an authentic Korean experience (and not realising that this perhaps is the authentic Korean experience) we dived down a side-street and headed for the first restaurant we found, only to turn around when we saw the helpfully-translated sign on the door: “Eating: Yes. Vomiting: No.” It just put us off a bit. The second attempt didn’t go much better – we bounded through a door to be greeted by three smiling female staff. I was just about to ask for a table when I realised there weren’t any. I said, “This isn’t a restaurant, is it!” The still-smiling reply came back:: “No! Sauna!”
Finally we struck lucky and ended up in an upstairs buffet-type place. We sat in the window with a perfect view over Zara, Foot Locker and Starbucks. No sign of any vomiting at all, which was a relief.
Back at the airport my flight is delayed and my connection in Paris is going to be tight. They have a lovely quiet area called “Rest and Relax” which has big low couches you can lie down on and doze or watch the planes taking off. The sort of thing you normally only find in business-class lounges, but here it’s free – which, as you can imagine, makes it a backpackers’ hotspot. There seems to be an informal understanding that each snoring backpacker gets to sprawl themselves across at least four couches. Still, I manage to find one and mentally prepare myself for the 13 hours ahead of me. Out of the corner of my half-closed eye, I see the British Airways direct service to Heathrow taxiing out to the runway. Never mind, I think. Just lie back and … think of England. Via France.